Stress, Shift Work, and Little Support: Alcohol and Substance Use Disorders In Canadian Oil & Gas Workers

Substance use disorders, including alcohol, are serious issues in the oil and gas industry. When left unchecked, they have devastating impacts on individuals, their families, and their communities. This article will look at the underlying causes, consequences, and treatment of substance use disorders.

Substance Use Among Oil & Gas Workers

According to Alberta Health Services, oil and gas workers are more likely to use alcohol than workers in other industries. They are at increased risk of hazardous drinking compared to workers in other sectors.

Specifically, 81.7% report consuming alcohol in the last 12 months, compared to 71.5% in other sectors. Twelve per cent are at medium or high risk of harmful drinking.[1]

Seven per cent use illicit drugs, a rate comparable to that seen in other industries. When it was still illegal, the most commonly used illicit substance was marijuana.[2] In the workplace, 5% to 18% of adults meet the criteria for at least one substance use disorder.[3]

There are no conclusive statistics on fentanyl, cocaine, or methamphetamine use among oil and gas workers. However, with these drugs available in Alberta,[4] it’s likely that a minority of workers do use them. Although smoking tobacco has become less popular over the past 20 years, almost 1 in 5 Albertans (18.9%) still smoke cigarettes.[5]

Why Do Oil & Gas Workers Develop Substance Use Disorders?

Social isolation and working in high-risk environments are key risk factors.[6] Workers typically have few distractions or outlets for psychological distress between shifts, and some turn to substances as a coping mechanism.

Some oil and gas workers live in camps while working on development projects. Camps may have gyms, coffee shops, and other facilities that encourage a healthy, balanced lifestyle. However, others offer few amenities.[7] With no leisure activities or friendship groups, workers may use drugs and alcohol as a distraction.

Mobile workers, who live in short-term accommodation while working on resource development projects, are especially vulnerable. Away from their families and friends, they have few sources of emotional support.[8] Because their jobs usually pay well, they have disposable income to spend on drugs.

Researchers have uncovered a link between psychosocial stress and alcohol consumption in oil rig workers, suggesting that workers drink as a means of coping with their demanding jobs. A survey of 210 Brazilian workers showed a significant relationship between workplace stress and likelihood of developing an alcohol use disorder.[9]

Shift and night work poses another challenge. Working shifts is common practice in the extractive industries, and can have a detrimental effect on family life and general wellbeing. Shift workers are more likely to suffer sleep problems than people who work regular hours,[10] and this may leave them more prone to depression and substance use disorders.

The Social Impact of Substance Use Disorders

Substance use disorders can lead to relationship breakdown and family problems.[11] Specifically, children of parents with substance use disorders are more likely to witness domestic violence, perform poorly at school, and live in a chaotic home environment. If a parent spends a lot of money on substances, they may put their family’s finances in jeopardy, leading to further conflict and anxiety at home.

On a societal level, substance use disorders correlate with homelessness, incarceration rates, housing instability, dependence on welfare, and unemployment.[12] People with substance use disorders can find themselves in a downward spiral. Their disorder makes it hard to hold down a job, which in turn leads to financial difficulties. Finding work while battling a drug or alcohol addiction can be impossible, and so the cycle continues.

In 2017–2018, the Albert Law Enforcement Response Team seized almost $10 million worth of drugs.[13] Large-scale drug dealing is a form of organized crime, often accompanied by increased gang activity, violence, public disorder, and theft.

In June 2019, Alberta police dismantled a drugs ring in Alberta. The team seized over $64,000 worth of illegal substances, along with guns and other weapons. Police arrested seven people, and are preparing to charge others as their investigations continue.[14]

Thus, substance use disorders can help fuel a shadow economy that has wide-reaching consequences for the local community.

How Much Do Substance Use Disorders Cost The Economy?

Substance use disorders cost the Canadian economy $38.4 billion per year, with alcohol and tobacco accounting for 70% of these losses.[15]

In Alberta, the costs are $5.5 billion annually. Lost productivity accounts for 46% of these costs, followed by healthcare (30%), criminal justice (18%), and other expenses (6%).

How Do Substance Use Disorders Cost Employers?

Workers under the influence of drugs or alcohol are more likely to have accidents on the job. They are also more likely to take sick days, make poor decisions, are more prone to distraction, and are less productive than their colleagues.[16]

If a worker damages a piece of equipment, the company will have to replace it. Other costs include overtime to cover extra workload caused by diminished productivity, insurance claims, and benefits claims.

Workers who have to cover for a colleague under the influence of drugs or alcohol may feel resentful and pressured. Strained workplace relationships make teams less effective. If workers realize that their colleagues are working under the influence of substances, they might conclude that their company doesn’t care about employees’ safety.

If an employee has an accident at work, the company’s reputation might be damaged if they receive media attention.[17] This can negatively impact sales and business partnerships, and make it more difficult to attract high quality employees or investors.

It is legal in Canada to test employees for drugs and alcohol under some circumstances. Normally, employers must pay for these tests. In a large workforce, the costs can mount rapidly. Because testing can be a complex issue from a legal perspective,[18] an employer may also decide to pay an external consultant to help them draw up an appropriate testing policy. Employers may also choose to provide employees with training on how to identify substance use disorders in the workplace.

Under the Canadian Human Rights Act, substance dependence is a disability. Like any other disability, employers have a duty to accommodate it. If an employer detects signs that an employee may have a substance use disorder, such as an inexplicable drop in productivity, the employer has a legal obligation to discuss possible accommodations. This is called “duty to inquire” (Canadian Human Rights Commission, 2017).[19]

An employer may have to pay other workers overtime or hire temporary workers while the employee takes time off for treatment. The Canadian Human Rights Commission have published in-depth guidance for employers who need to accommodate a worker. Their toolkit, Impaired at Work, is available for download at chrc-ccdp.gc.ca.  

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) provide workers with a quick, confidential way to access advice and support with substance use. As of 2018, around three-quarters of employers offered EAPs.[20] EAPs do not cover long-term addiction treatment, but they can signpost employees to appropriate professional help.

They cost anywhere from $10–$100 per employee per year.[21] For businesses with a large workforce, this can be a significant upfront investment. Although some research suggests they can improve work performance and enhance employees’ quality of life, there is little conclusive evidence that they can offset the financial cost of substance misuse in the oil and gas sector specifically.[22]

Men are more reluctant than women to call on their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for help, and are also more likely to have problems with substance use disorders. Specifically encouraging men to seek help from EAPs could make them more cost-effective.[23]

Government Policies and Substance Use Disorders At Work

The Canadian Government treats substance use disorders as a public health problem. It emphasizes prevention, harm reduction, and access to treatment rather than punishment. The Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy (CDSS) came into effect in 2016 and frames substance misuse as a societal problem with multiple underlying factors, such as experience of trauma and living in poverty.[24]

Under the Canada Labour Code, employers must identify, control, or eliminate workplace hazards.[25] They must involve workers in their assessments. In short, they have a responsibility to keep employees as safe as possible. They must put together hazard prevention plans that address substance use disorders and impairment.

Employees must tell their employers if they have a medical condition or are taking medication that impairs their ability to work safely. They must also agree to abide by workplace policies and understand how using both legal and illegal substances might affect their work.

Employers can test employees for drugs and alcohol if they work in safety-sensitive roles. Many jobs in the oil and gas industry fall into this category. The decision to test needs to be made on a case-by-case basis. Only when safety benefits outweigh potential invasion of privacy is it acceptable.

In October 2018, the Government legalized recreational cannabis. However, the law surrounding drug testing is unlikely to change, because testing aims to detect possible impairment that could put those in the workplace at risk. This principle applies whether or not a substance is legal.

Treatment Options

Treatment types for substance use disorders include detoxification (detox) programs, outpatient community-based care, outpatient programs at a treatment facility, and and residential treatment programs.[26] Individual counselling, group therapy, medication assisted therapy (MAT), and peer support groups can help patients achieve successful long-term recovery.

Patients may need medical supervision while detoxing from drugs. Others may need help with concurrent mental health disorders. Treatment starts with a personalized plan that may change over time, depending on the patient’s progress. A few sessions with a counsellor can be enough in some cases, but some clients require months of residential treatment.

Some programs focus on people with particular needs. For instance, they may admit only men or Indigenous people who need culturally informed care.[27]

Alberta Health Services provides free addiction treatment services including outpatient counselling and intensive day treatment programs. Unfortunately, waiting lists for publicly funded treatment can be long, with some patients waiting weeks for treatment. Private care facilities have much shorter waiting lists, and generally offer a more relaxed and private experience.

The quality of services can vary. Individuals need to make an informed choice when choosing treatment. They should look for a program accredited by a well-respected organization, such as Accreditation Canada or the Council on Accreditation.

Conclusions

Employers, workers, and the government all have a part to play in understanding and addressing substance use disorders in the oil and gas workers. To improve the situation, we need to tackle the root causes, such as workplace stress and lack of social support. We also need to reduce the stigma around substance use disorders, encourage workers to get help sooner rather than later, and make it easier for them to access effective, accredited treatment programs.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and workplace wellbeing interventions are increasingly recognized as useful tools in the fight against drug and alcohol misuse. However, some employees are reluctant to speak to anyone about their problems, even in confidence.

The oil and gas industry has a tough, macho image, which can be detrimental to its employees. If workers are to get the help they need, attitudes need to change. More research into EAPs and workplace awareness campaigns is vital if this sector is to make progress.

Most information in the public domain about substance use disorders in oil and gas workers is based on data collected over a decade ago. Government agencies regularly publish statistics on substance used disorder and drug-related crime, but these are not industry-specific.

To fully understand the problem today, we need more current data. Surveys, interviews, and detailed data regarding EAP utilization would help stakeholders understand the lived experience of oil and gas workers who struggle with substance used disorders. By giving workers a voice, we can develop legislation, treatment options, and preventative measures that support their mental health.

We Can Help You

If you would like to learn more about the treatment programs provided by EHN Canada, enrol yourself in one of our programs, or refer someone else, please call us at one of the numbers below. Our phone lines are open 24/7—so you can call us anytime.

  • 1-866-925-8306 for Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, ON
  • 1-587-317-4214 for EHN Sandstone, in Calgary, AB
  • 1-866-947-5911 for Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, BC
  • 1-866-828-2981 for EHN Whiterock, in Surrey, BC
  • 1-866-965-3941 for Clinique Nouveau Départ in Montreal, QC

Further Reading:

Read our article for employers about how to create a comprehensive addiction and substance use disorder policy for your organization in Canada.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission’s toolkit, Impaired at Work, provides guidance for employers who need to accommodate a worker with an addiction or substance use disorder.

References

[1] Alberta Health Services. (2017). Alcohol and drug use in Alberta’s oil and gas industry. Retrieved from https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/assets/info/res/mhr/if-res-mhr-alcohol-drug-oil-gas-industry.pdf

[2] Ibid.

[3] Els, C., Jackson, T.D., Milen, M.T., Kunyk, D., & Straube, S. (2018). Random drug and alcohol testing for preventing injury in workers. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 1. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD012921

[4] ALERT. (2018). Annual Report 2017-2018. Retrieved from https://alert-ab.ca/2017-18-annual-report/

[5] University of Waterloo. (n.d.). Tobacco Use In Canada. Retrieved from https://uwaterloo.ca/tobacco-use-canada/adult-tobacco-use/smoking-provinces/alberta

[6] Wright, A., & Griep, Y. (2019). Burning the midnight oil: Examining wellbeing and vulnerability in Alberta’s oil patch. The Extractive Industries and Society, 6(1), 77-84. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exis.2018.10.001

[7] Chandler, G. (n.d.). Reducing Alcohol and Substance Abuse: A Benefit of Workforce Housing in Oil, Gas, Mining and Construction Industries. Retrieved from https://www.targethospitality.com/content/documents/pdfs/white-papers/ReducingAlcoholandSubstanceAbusethroughWorkforceHousing.pdf

[8] Angel, A.C.A. (n.d.). Beyond the “Roughneck” Stereotype: Revealing the Actual Face of Mobile Workers in the Alberta Oil Sands and North Dakota’s Bakken Oil Region and Why It Matters to Health. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2XnE1Vj

[9] Moura Vidal, J., Mendes Abreu, A., & Fernandes Portela, L. (2017). Psychosocial stress at work and alcohol consumption patterns in offshore oil workers. Cadernos de Saúde Pública, 33, 6. http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0102-311xe00116616

[10] Fossum, I.N., Bjorvatn, B., Waage, S., & Pallesen, S. (2013). Effects of Shift and Night Work in the Offshore Petroleum Industry: A Systematic Review. Industrial Health, 51(5), 530-544. doi: 10.2486/indhealth.2013-0054

[11] Lander, L., Howsare, J., & Byrne, M. (2013). The Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Families and Children: From Theory to Practice. Social Work and Public Health, 28, 194-205. doi: 10.1080/19371918.2013.759005

[12] Daley, D.C. (2013). Family and social aspects of substance use disorders and treatment. Journal of Food and Drug Analysis, 21(4), S73-S76. doi: 10.1016/j.jfda.2013.09.038

[13] ALERT. (2018). Annual Report 2017-2018. Retrieved from https://alert-ab.ca/2017-18-annual-report/

[14] Ibid.

[15] Canadian Substance Use Costs and Harms Scientific Working Group. (2018). Canadian Substance Use Costs and Harms in the Provinces and Territories (2007–2014). Retrieved from https://www.ccsa.ca/canadian-substance-use-costs-and-harms-provinces-and-territories-2007-2014

[16] Shepell fgi. (2009). Health and Wellness Trends in the Oil and Gas Sector. Retrieved from https://www.shepell.com/en-ca/knowledgeandmedia/news/research%20report/pdf/Oil%20and%20Gas%20Report_2009.pdf

[17] Atlantic Canada Council on Addiction. (n.d.). Problematic Substance Use That Impacts The Workplace. Retrieved from https://www.health.gov.nl.ca/health/publications/addiction_substance_abuse_workplace_toolkit.pdf

[18] Alberta Health Services. (n.d.) Alcohol and Drug Testing. Retrieved from https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/amh/Page2717.aspx

[19] Canadian Human Rights Commission. (2017). Impaired at Work – A guide to accommodating substance dependence. Retrieved from https://www.chrc-ccdp.gc.ca/eng/content/impaired-work-guide-accommodating-substance-dependence

[20] Handrick, L. (2018). What is an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) & How Does It Work? Retrieved from https://fitsmallbusiness.com/what-is-an-eap-employee-assistance-program/

[21] Ibid.

[22] Attridge, M. (2019). A global perspective on promoting workplace mental health and the role of employee assistance programs. American Journal of Health Promotion, 34(4), 622-627. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10713/8975

[23] Ibid.

[24] Government of Canada. (2018). Strengthening Canada’s Approach to Substance Use Issues. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/canadian-drugs-substances-strategy/strengthening-canada-approach-substance-use-issue.html

[25] Government of Canada. (2015). Federal labour standards. https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/programs/employment-standards/federal-standards.html

[26] Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction & Canadian Executive Council on Addictions. (2017). Finding Quality Addiction Care in Canada. Retrieved from https://findaddictioncare.ca/

[27] Ibid.